The Turpentine Compress

D. E. Larsen, DVM

I carefully started removing the wrap on the hindfoot of Lady, a large Golden Retriever. This wrap was composed of a couple of rags and what looked like an old tee shirt. 

I recoiled from the odor.

“When did this happen,” I asked Ralph.

“She got ran over yesterday afternoon. The foot looked so bad, and she was licking it so much, so I put a turpentine compress on it last night.”

“Turpentine!” I said. “What made you think turpentine would be helpful.”

“My grandfather always used turpentine on a wound on his cattle,” Ralph said with no hesitation.

I pulled the final pieces of cloth off the wound. Lady just laid her head down on the table, obviously resigned to the misery she was suffering.

This wound was a total loss of the skin from the hock down to the footpads. The skin was totally gone. The bare tissue looked almost cooked from the turpentine. I can only imagine how that must have felt when it was applied.

“Your grandfather maybe used it on some minor abrasions of the skin. That was maybe done in those days. Using it on a wound like this was nothing less than torture for Lady.”

“Gee, I am sorry, Doc,” Ralph said. “I was just trying to do something helpful.”

“This wound was probably not repairable last night. It is definitely not repairable at this point. This leg is going to have to be amputated.”

“When are you going to be able to do that surgery?” Ralph asked.

“We have a busy schedule, but I can’t allow Lady to sit in a kennel and suffer waiting for surgery. We will move things around and get her into surgery right away.”

“I don’t know, Doc,” Ralph said. “I am not sure she will be able to get along with only 3 legs. Maybe we should just put her to sleep.”

“Dogs wake up in the morning and evaluate their situation. They just get up and go with what they have. They make do. People worry more about amputations than the dog. You will probably have to count legs to know that she only has 3 legs.”

“What do you think it is going to cost?” Ralph asked.

“After what you put this dog through for the last 12 hours, you owe her whatever it cost. You owe her another few years.”

“Doc, I was just asking to make sure I can pay the bill,” Ralph said. “But if I decide to put her to sleep, that is the way it will be.”

“Ralph, there is not a judge in the county who will not believe me if I say this is a case of animal abuse,” I said. “Now, I don’t believe in reporting any charges of abuse when it was done out of ignorance, and the person seeks care. That applies in this case. Especially since you are here this morning and not next week. But if you want to put her to sleep, my opinion might change.”

“I am just trying to see where I stand,” Ralph said. “You do the surgery. I will leave a deposit at the front desk. When do you think Lady will be able to go home?”

“Going home will depend on how well she is doing in the morning. If she is up and about, I will probably send her home. She will need a few pain pills, but she is probably going to feel so much better with this foot gone that she will be bouncing around.”

“Where do you take the leg off, Doc?” Ralph asked.

“We could save you a little money by just taking it off at the hock joint. But Lady will do a whole lot better if we take it off in the middle of her thigh.”

“Let’s do what is best for her,” Ralph said. “You have me feeling bad enough already.”

We hurried Lady to surgery. The stench of the turpentine was nearly overwhelming in the surgery room. The surgical prep on the leg did little to lessen the odor or fumes.

I did a standard mid femur amputation. This started with a bivalve incision through the skin to provide big enough flaps for closure over the stump. Extra skin can always be trimmed off the flaps as needed, but if the flaps were cut too short, it would be a significant problem to shorten the stump.

I isolated the major vessels first. Double ligating the femoral artery to reduce any significant blood loss as the surgery progressed. After the vessels were ligated and severed, I separated the muscles quickly. I wanted to get this leg off and out of the surgery room as soon as possible, so everyone could breathe again.

When I finally had dissected down to the femur, I severed it with a Gigli wire saw. Once free from the body, I handed the leg off to be removed from the room.

At this point, I could take a deep breath and start closing the muscles over the bone to provide a well-padded stump. Then the skin was trimmed and closed. I had been a little faster than usual because I wanted that stinky foot out of the surgery room. It was a pretty brief surgery, less than an hour.

Lady recovered with some pain medication aid, but she had to feel so much better with that foot being gone. She was up and around by the early afternoon. Being a little older, it took her a few tries before Lady could handle getting up and down with only one hind leg. After those first few tries, she was acting like she didn’t miss the leg much.

When I could feel confident that Lady would be ready to go home in the morning, I gave Ralph a call.

“Ralph, you can pick up Lady any time in the morning,” I said. “She is feeling much better and is getting around on the one leg just fine.”

“That sounds good, Doc,” Ralph said. “I will be there first thing in the morning.”

When morning came, Lady ate a good breakfast and walked on a leash well. 

Ralph took care of the account and lead Lady out to his pickup. He lowered the tailgate, and Lady started to jump into the back. She made a jump but did not have the strength in the one hind leg to make it up to the pickup bed. Ralph was quick to catch her before Lady fell. Then she jumped up with her front feet on the tailgate and looked to Ralph for a boost. One little boost from Ralph and Lady was in the bed.

“She will do just fine,” I said to Sandy as I watched from the office. “Just give her a couple of weeks.”

Lady continued to do well. As predicted, one had to count legs to make sure she only had three legs when she returned for suture removal a couple of weeks later.

After the sutures were removed, I never saw Lady or Ralph again. That was not a surprise. I had been stern with Ralph, and for him to find another clinic was almost expected. Perhaps it was from embarrassment for his actions, but more likely, it was from the veiled threat of reporting his abuse.

Photo by Hemant Gupta from Pexels

Published by d.e.larsen.dvm

Country vet for over 40 years in Sweet Home Oregon. I graduated from Colorado State University in 1975. I practiced in Enumclaw Washington for a year and a half before moving to Sweet Home to start a practice.

9 thoughts on “The Turpentine Compress

    1. My philosophy was that when the abuse was not intentional (which it never was), and the owner sought care, it was my place to provide both care and education. If one becomes a reporter of abuse, then clients with the need for education will never seek your services if they fear they will be reported. In truth, I saw no actual intentional abuse. I did see a great need for education, especially in my early years in Sweet Home when many clients had never used a veterinarian before.

      Liked by 1 person

  1. I can understand your frustration and anger with the situation. Yet ignorance and abuse are two different things, with a hazy grey zone between them. It can happen on either end of the stethoscope. One story I do remember from my mother’s days in the Frontier Nursing Service was about one of the new doctors, affectionately known as “Dr. Chocolate” for his love of chocolate. He kept a stash in his desk, and frequently helped himself to some. One day when my mother was there, a woman brought a baby down to the clinic, claiming the baby had turned blue. The doctor examined the baby, who looked fine at the time, and then looked at the mother, a thin scraggly hill woman. Obviously no education, couldn’t possibly have seen a “blue” baby. Those things just didn’t happen. She was seeing things, and making a fuss over nothing. He was dismissive of the situation, told the woman what he thought, and sent her and the baby back home. My mother tried to get him to understand these mountain people did not tend to make wild claims. The woman had seen something amiss, why not keep the baby at the clinic for a while for observation? The doctor, however, was certain the hill woman was seeing things that weren’t there, and would not keep the child for observation. As you might guess, the baby died that night. Turned blue again, and never breathed again. It was a sad and humbling experience for Dr. Chocolate, who truly was remorseful at his mistake. I guess he had to learn somehow, but at the expense of that baby’s life. Was it abuse, ignorance, or both?

    Liked by 1 person

    1. My philosophy was that when the abuse was not intentional (which it never was), and the owner sought care, it was my place to provide both care and education. If one becomes a reporter of abuse, then clients with the need for education will never seek your services if they fear they will be reported. In truth, I saw no actual intentional abuse. I did see a great need for education, especially in my early years in Sweet Home when many clients had never used a veterinarian before. As for Dr. Chocolate, that is why they call it practice. Most practitioners have had mistakes in judgment, some fatal, from which they have learned.

      Liked by 1 person

  2. I finished this story with tears in my eyes because I can imagine the agony that dog suffered. Ralph should have known that if you get even the smallest amount of turpentine in a cut or wound it burns like hell. There was no excuse in the world for him to have done that.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. My philosophy was that when the abuse was not intentional (which it never was), and the owner sought care, it was my place to provide both care and education. If one becomes a reporter of abuse, then clients with the need for education will never seek your services if they fear they will be reported. In truth, I saw no actual intentional abuse. I did see a great need for education, especially in my early years in Sweet Home when many clients had never used a veterinarian before.

      Liked by 1 person

  3. To be more clear, there are many things people *should* know better than to do, or not do, and end up harming themselves, their children, animals or someone else. This sort of ignorance knows no educational or economic boundaries. The turpentine bandage is but one horrifying example of that, but now presented with the animal by the owner, who doesn’t think anything is wrong, what do you do? One has to try to educate the owner so they don’t the same or similar again, no matter what practice they end up at. The anger and frustration are quite understandable, and I am not siding with Ralph, but I think veiled threats and a label of abuse should be used with caution, as they could drive someone like him underground in the future. That dog was lucky Ralph brought her in. I don’t know what Ralph’s background is, but I wouldn’t want to discourage someone like him from seeking help. He could have easily shot and buried his own mistake, and never learned anything.

    That early story about Gus the cat, who was thrown on the manure pile to die by a client, seems like that story might make an interesting comparison to this one.

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    1. Ralph was already seeking care and threats of reporting abuse come up when he was considering putting the dog to sleep. That seems appropriate in my opinion.

      Liked by 2 people

      1. That was my point, and I do see your point, and agree with it, to an extent. But at least Ralph came in on his own, and might not have tried otherwise, and Doc never would never have been able to save this dog. Ralph apparently needed strong and heated persuasion to do the right thing, but threats, veiled or otherwise, can backfire in the long run, scare people in the wrong way. I don’t know how long ago this happened, but unfortunately that was probably not the only pet Ralph ever owned. One hopes he never tried anything like that again, and didn’t hesitate to seek professional treatment when things came up. My guess is that there is a probably a good backstory on Ralph here too. Veterinarians and pediatricians seem like they have the hardest jobs in the medical field outside of working in a war zone, sometimes seeing the worst of what people can do to dependent creatures.

        This was a horrible story, but the ordeal Gus went through was also the stuff of nightmares. I went back and read that one again. Cats may have 9 lives, but what about old Grandpa who whacked the cat on the head, not wanting to spend money on fixing up the cat or on proper euthanasia? Grandpa liked old Gus, but did a horrible thing to save money and “relieve” suffering. In that story, even Doc initially thought maybe Grandpa had the cat’s best interest at heart but just didn’t carry it out well. It sounds like Carol probably said more to shame Grandpa than anyone else could have. Fortunately, that story had a happy ending. If anyone could fix up a cat in that condition and have it live a normal life, it would be Doc.

        Liked by 1 person

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